The Limelight Index: Dan Montanarini

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Film school or no film school? Well, according to Paul Thomas Anderson: “You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school. Film school is a complete con, because the information is there if you want it.”

This is very true – we live in an age of information overload – but is this a good or bad thing? Can film schools not condense such information and provide a way through all the slosh? Information to one side, the practice is probably the best thing you are likely to get out of film school, so let us look in more depth at the practice film school can offer.

I caught up with Dan Montanarini, a recent graduate in directing fiction from the prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS) in the UK, to pick his brains on the subject. He promises no bias.

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Dan’s first short film The Guest, starring Olivia Williams, premiered at the Krakow International Film Festival and his graduate film Seahorse will be making the rounds later this year.

From 14 Dan knew that he wanted to direct films, but what was the next step to be? There are two things to take into consideration when approaching such a mammoth task as film directing: how to crack the industry open and secondly, perhaps most importantly, how to ground yourself in the craft and the magnificent history that precedes you. Film is an “art form” – study the history and theory of storytelling and aesthetics. Dan expresses a hungry appetite for the world that film occupies, which means watching a lot of films and exploring film culture. You can’t get away without watching lots of films folks. This should be a task to relish in. Of course, a director should enjoy the physical elements of life on a film set, but equally essential as to finding your feet as a film director is being able to talk of your place in the surrounding culture.

Like anything in life that requires making something happen, it won’t transpire at the flick of a switch. Dan graduated in English literature and film from Warwick University and went on to find a full-time job. While earning his living, Dan produced and directed his aforementioned film The Guest on the side. And here is where film school comes in, as a time to focus solely on making films without the burnout that one encounters trying to do everything at once (and putting food on the table). However, Dan had never planned on the film school route because he had the sense that if one needs £10,000 to spend on film school then why not make a film yourself? Similar thinking to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Despite all this, Dan explains that film school offers far more opportunity to enrich your craft than the piggy bank; he had two full-scale set builds to work with!

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Getting into NFTS is almost entirely based on your short film. It needs to be good. If it is good enough then you get an interview. Dan says that the interview was actually a very pleasant experience; NFTS looks for honesty in their applicants and play to a focused, yet relaxed environment. Once at the school, you are free to explore your craft with great freedom. While the contact hours are very decent, Dan is sure to note that the tutors do not impose regulations. They do, however, provide detailed feedback and hold an intense reviewing process. From rushes to sound lock, every step of the phase is thought-out and given attention to detail. It looks like film school must do one thing very well: harden a director to feedback! When was the last time you received a fleshed out piece of feedback on your own film? Go to film school and you will never have to force someone to watch your film again!

But, how does one keep their own direction with all these opinions? Well, as Dan clarifies, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers, be honest and you will learn quickly. By staying flexible you will eventually be led towards your goal – “Know that it is going to come, it is going to happen.” A director does not need to always provide the answers, they just need to be confident in what they do and don’t know. This sounds well, but what happens when a director says, “I don’t know?” Quite simply, remain open to an idea and take it on board sensibly. Directors are not super-humans, but super-talent does often surround them. In other words, feed off the talent around you.

What’s the best method for working with actors? Give them the script, understand their interpretation, let them rehearse it and then work with them towards your vision. There is no right way to do this, the environment, the story, and personality of the actor will inform this. This is Dan’s view and he goes on to talk about other directors, including a screening he attended of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen who gave some miraculous advice: “I am a director and not an illustrator”. I.e. you cannot be too rigid on a film set; rather you should work with what you have, in the moment, so to speak. A film director needs to direct on the day, not everything can be done before (“unless you are Hitchcock”). Every director has his or her own way of working. Each director is unique in their approach. Film is the medium of an artist.

 

Here’s an interesting method of directing that Dan picks upon, but, let’s be clear, does not salute to himself: letting the actor working it out for themselves until they inevitably reach a point were they become desperate for direction. It is rumoured that Lars Von Trier plays these psychological games on set. And have you ever seen a bad performance in one of his films? An ethical question is raised. But film directing is arguably an form of manipulation, and working with actors is no different. It is up to each director to eventually find their own way.

Dan continues to talk about his love of movies and directors, moving on to the one and only Martin Scorsese – an obvious choice, but a choice that makes sense for a first-love. Hearing Scorsese talk about the movies is like spreading jam on toast or taking a close shave with a sharpened razor. It gives cinephiles an ecstatic level of insight and comprehension. If you ever run out of steam in this business, or feel lonely, spend an hour on YouTube (or preferably a criterion Blu-ray) with Scorsese talking about the cinema. And don’ forget about John Sturges too.

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Perhaps the next step to reignite your imagination with dreams, memories, and alternate realities would be to stop in with Fellini. Dan talks about his first experience as akin to being “stabbed.” Not quite spreadable, but an experience far closer to reality, as Dan explains the mixture of memories and textures of reality on display are far more adjacent to the thought-patterns that occur in our own everyday existence – a truism of lateral proportions. Finally, if you are really looking to challenge your taste, a desire for Luis Buñuel’s spectacle of curiosity will serve delightfully.

Can you think of ten minutes that changed your life? This question was asked to Dan during his time at NFTS and is a great way to connect with your beliefs and potentially re-write your past. Film directors must find something personal in the material that they work with. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they must understand the nuts and bolts of their own lives and the various transformations occurring within. You might be thinking why ten minutes and not, more likely, a split-second (a tragedy) or a few months (a romance), but ten minutes of change and we have a movie scene. Give this technique some thought!

What happens when you finish film school? Other than being highly versed in your craft, full of debt and geared to rev any film production to as an accomplished virtuoso, you must just keep going. You may find yourself in the position of Lars Von Trier’s actors: you have no idea what is going on, but you eventually find yourself acclimatising and succeeding. A director can only keep developing their ideas, stories and writing. A director must be ready to present their greatness. Think beyond your present moment, be aware of the past, present and future. Where are you from? Write about this. Where do you want to be? Write about that journey. Who was your first love? Write about that. These are all ideas that Dan wants to inspire and he reminds me that we are all living and, therefore, we all have telling stories to tell. All of us.

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To sum up with some key ideas and NFTS salutations:

  • Film school may be a fantasy factory, but it also requires serious hard work:
  • Rigorous review processes include showcasing each step of a films maternity to the entire school of students and professors for merciless feedback:
  • Confidence building. Tougher skin. Objectively shrewd.
  • You can find your own voice: teachers will adapt to each individual while keeping the student open to new experiences and ideas.
  • On set: “you have all these talented people around you, why would you not want them to contribute?” Enough said.
  • Actors – discover first what you are working with. Points highlighted from Steve McQueen and Lars Von Trier.
  • Scorsese will make you fall in love with cinema. His conviction is infectious.
  • Be confident even if you don’t know the answer – it is okay not to know everything! Enjoy directing!

Watch this curious and unruly short film from Dan below.

 

Visit Dan’s website here.

You can also join him on Twitter.

 

 

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The Limelight Index: Ewan Stewart – Writer/Director

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I was recently lucky enough to see Ewan Stewart’s brilliant new short film Getting On (above) at Leeds Film Festival, it has since gone on to screen at a number of festivals and win the British Council Award for Best UK Short at London Shorts. I got in touch with the Scottish filmmaker to discuss his unique short and how he got started out in the industry.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

My parents are both writers, so I grew up around a lot stories and that basic fascination that I think we all have for film and cinema kind of took over. I was also very interested in the portrayal of Scottish culture in cinema. When I was growing up, there weren’t many films coming out of Scotland at first, but then films like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and the work of Ken Loach, really gave me hope that it would be possible to become a filmmaker where I was from.

Are there any particular filmmakers who inspire you?

I’m inspired by a wide range of filmmakers, but I grew up watching a lot of independent American cinema from the 70s and 80s. As well as the films of the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Polanski, Malick, Lynch and Friedkin. I was also interested in European cinema, particularly French New Wave.

Am I right in thinking that you came into the film industry from TV?

Yes, I used to direct commercials before I started working in drama. Before this, I worked in various roles in TV from assistant director to editor.

Do you think that TV is a good route into the film industry?

It can be. The thing about filmmaking is that there are so many different ways that you can get into it. TV helped me to understand who does what and how everything works. I also gained a lot of contacts from the TV industry, so when I started making my own films I got help and support from people I’d worked with.

How did the idea come about for your latest award-winning short film ‘Getting On’?

It was actually based on a short story that my dad wrote. It was essentially a one-page character monologue and was based on a neighbour from his childhood. I felt that the story and voice of the character were very unique and that’s what attracted me to it.

Do you view the story as controversial in any way?

No, I don’t think it would divide audiences in any way. It’s not really about an issue as such; it’s more of a character piece about loneliness and isolation. My aim for the film was to make something that was both funny and poignant with a strong visual element to it.

What made you decide to shoot in monochrome?  

I felt it definitely fitted the tone and the mundanity of the character’s everyday life and I also love black and white from an aesthetic point of view. Practically, as we shot quite quickly on a DSLR, I wanted to make sure the cinematography was consistent in the final film.

You have a lot of tight-angled and awkward shots that I imagine the use of a DSLR made more achievable. Are you pro DSLR in this sense? 

The camera we used was definitely right for this particular film and I’m all for the DSLR cameras in general as they make filmmaking much more accessible. Some people say that the DSLR look is over used, but they do have a good quality to them, depending on how you use them. I wanted the very shallow depth of field look and the DSLR was great for this.

For those who haven’t seen your film, what other festivals is it screening at?

It will be showing at the Glasgow Shorts Film Festival this month and hopefully a few more in the coming months.

What is your take with online distribution?

I’m all for putting short films online, but I’d always do this after the film has finished its festival run. Obviously you can reach a larger audience online, which is a definite advantage.

Will you put ‘Getting On’ online?

I’m currently in the process of attaching the film to a distributor, so it’s unlikely that it will appear online any time soon I’m afraid.

Do you have any other projects in the works, a feature maybe?

I’m just finishing off another short at the moment for release later this year. After this, I have a couple of feature scripts I’m working on.

Will you be taking these projects online for funding?

I probably won’t be going down this route just yet as I’m hoping to get funding from more traditional methods through production companies. But getting funding is always tough, so it’s not something I would rule out.

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?

You really just have to keep making films and keep learning from your mistakes. It all helps. Before I started directing commercials and drama, I made a lot of corporate videos, which I’d shoot myself. Corporates are often dull in terms of subject matter, but everything you do helps to train your eye and give you a greater technical understanding of cameras and editing. They also can give you a chance to be creative whilst earning money at the same time.

Finally, what makes a great short film for you?

I always like to see fresh ideas or a new way of looking at a subject, whether stylistically or through a unique voice. However, I’d say that story is always the most important thing, whether in a short or feature.

Personally, I like short films with humour – there is often a tendency for filmmakers starting out to go for a rather bleak subject matter. With humour, you can instantly get a sense of whether an audience likes your work or not, purely through their reaction and this is definitely an attraction for me.

Watch the trailer for Getting On via the link below.

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The Limelight Index: Vincent Grashaw – Writer/Director

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Vincent Grashaw is a filmmaker from LA who recently completed directing his successful debut feature film Coldwater. Here, we talk about how he got there, the film and his plans for the future.

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I started out in junior high, 1994. This was more or less the beginning of the impressionable years, where you’d absorb all of an artist’s work – for me this was movies. From 14 to 18, a lot of the movies I watched really had an effect on me even if they weren’t necessarily the best movies. I was young and used to ‘hack’ projects that’d I’d seen, using similar elements, pulling stuff from it for my own scripts. Sometimes you even do it subconsciously. So at some point you stop hacking films you love and start to come up with your own film aesthetics, style, and vision. So I suppose it was never a bad thing because I knew the creative wheels were turning and that film was something I really wanted to do. It was my schooling process since I never went to college. The movies I watched at that time molded the kinds I want to make and who I am as a filmmaker.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I have so many different movies I like to watch, the ones I can watch over and over are completely different to my favourite movies. For example, I could watch What About Bob, The Witches, Stand By Me or The Big Lebowski over and over. These movies I connected within and they are comforting and humoring, however these are very different to what films I actually make.

Am I right in thinking your movies lend themselves to violence?

Yeah, I tend to gravitate towards the darker subjects in movies. I have a couple of movies to make that aren’t violent in the pipeline that I intend to make.  I’m not harnessing myself to just one genre.

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What’s your opinion on directors who stick to one genre?

It depends on the director.  If a filmmaker only makes horror films then that’s their thing, I don’t have a problem with that at all. Filmmaking is such a personal thing that it has to be relevant to the filmmaker… it’s a huge release as an artist.

You acted in and produced in one of last years acclaimed indie movies ‘Bellflower’, how did you get involved with this?

Evan Glodlell, the director, is a good friend of mine and we used to make short films together. The film was a very long process; Evan had been working on the script for a while. We shot the movie in 2008 on a tiny budget. Initially, we weren’t sure how to proceed, but we had a little bit of money and just went for it.  We became obsessed with getting things done, at ALL costs. We did many things, most illegal to make that happen.  The only reason I was acting in it was because he couldn’t find anyone to play the role, and we’d acted in each other’s shorts, so I just did it.

Are your short films online anywhere?

Its funny, once Bellflower got into Sundance, we pretty much took all our stuff off the net. We used to make ridiculous stuff, it was outrageous and weird, and we didn’t want it out there! One day, some of it might be re-released, maybe through a compilation Dvd.

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When did ‘Coldwater’ become a reality?

I had the project on my plate throughout my entire 20’s. I had a loose connection to a kid who was abducted one night, so this was where the idea originally came from. However, it wasn’t until several times trying to get the film made that it came through.  Trying to make the film was basically my film school; I’d meet lots of different types of producers, some who were absolute weasels, playing wannabes, and some who were just in over their head. It’s definitely better it wasn’t made back then because over 13 years I learned a lot more about the reality behind the movie as well, which lends to its credibility. All these elements combined drove the film into what it is today.

What is your take on crowdfunding for indie filmmakers?

I just produced a movie in September with the guys who I made Bellflower with. It’s a gritty, turf-war action movie; we crowdfunded this film using Indiegogo and raised about $180,000. We then partnered with a couple of production companies who funded the rest. So, crowdfunding was great for this movie because we obtained a following with Bellflower, so it was a great way to get things going.

Are there any other projects in the works for you?

I recently acquired a script for the next feature I will be directing, which is a psychological horror movie.  I’m very excited about this. We are currently aiming to shoot around spring/summer 2014.

Any release dates planned yet?

In some cases, in the indie world you don’t really know where your going to be until you do it. It’s not like the studio system where you can set dates years in advance. We’ll take the film to a festival and it will hopefully sell there, unless we presale the movie because of the actors I attach.

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What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking? 

All the drama and bullshit that coincides with filmmaking really has nothing to do with it. There’s a key relationship with everyone involved, it’s like being family. You come together for a period in your life and then it’s all over and you get a new family. Filmmaking is so much fun and, for me, actually a very peaceful experience. It’s a very collaborative art, even though at the end of the day the director has to make the ultimate decision. It is a very fun process, I mean why else would I be doing this? It’s not like we’re all getting fat and foolish from all the money we’re making!

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?  

There’s a lot of advice I could give, but I have a couple of main things. Always stay humble, there will be a lot of things you’re married to in your script, but things will evolve and you’ll have to accept changes. Being open to this process is very important; nothing will be exactly as you pictured it in your head. Basically I am saying that your project evolves into many forms throughout the process and instead of fighting it, embrace it and see what transpires.

Secondly, don’t look at the business as a competitive thing. It can appear so competitive on the surface, which is overwhelming.  Don’t let that affect anything because at the end of the day it’s just you and your film.  People will try and knock you down, tell you that you’re doing something wrong, or unconventional. Before everything took off for me, the month before Bellflower took off, I think we were all in the darkest phase because we were getting all of this negative energy and feedback from people we should’ve never been listening to in the first place. So find a group of people you can trust with your material for honest criticism. Potentially from other artists who are relevant to what you’re trying to say; no one knows your material better than you.

Check out the trailer for Coldwater below:

Visit the movies website.